“To be a successful bass pro today, a guy’s got to be young and committed. It takes total dedication to the goal; there can be no side projects or distractions from home. All your focus must be directed toward the aspects of catching bass. Because, as soon as you let the real-world catch up with you, these guys will bury you.”
I had outlined the 2020 bass pro stereotype to a friend considering the career. The picture I painted wasn’t pretty to us 40-somethings, but I was certain it was the unfiltered truth.
And then Rusty Salewske came along.
By now, we all know the story of Rusty’s $200,000 TITLE win. At the age of 55, he’s certainly one of the oldest competitors to take down a year-end championship. But there’s more to it than that. For over 20 years now, Rusty has been a back-and-forth bass pro, chasing the dream when he’s able, and picking and choosing his path. At the same time, he’s lived a full life outside of bass, owning and operating a business; a husband and father providing the best life he could for his family.
Over the last two decades, Rusty Salewske has “gone pro” three times. In 2004 and 2005, he competed on the FLW Tour, followed by the FLW Open Series (now renamed) in 2006, where he competed against “the best fields ever assembled”, including early FLW standouts as well as top Bassmaster pros.
Despite a good run, Salewske opted out of the Tour in 2007, instead concentrating his efforts on the western-based National Guard tour (since renamed), as well as major local events and the U.S. Open, an annual favorite. Besides, things were busy at home with kids in high school and everything that goes with it.
I wondered how he could let that happen. After tasting the food at the adults' table, isn’t there an appetite for more?
“It’s an itch you’re always trying to scratch, for sure” Salewske allowed.
Fast forward to 2010, and Rusty Salewske was itchy again. He jumped back into the FLW Tour and found himself in the race for Angler of the Year his first season back. Such qualified Salewske for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic (formerly pitting top FLW pros vs B.A.S.S. anglers).
But then, in 2011, the wheels fell off. Every move Salewske made seemed wrong. To make matters worse, he was plagued by mechanical breakdowns at nearly every event. “It made me want to quit for a while,” Salewske remembered.
Again, Salewske stepped away from the big leagues, turning to triple-A competition and local events to fuel his competitive desires. But, according to Salewske, he “never stopped thinking about fishing the Tour.”
Nearly a decade went by before Salewske noted a change within himself. “I started fishing pretty good again. I’d won a few things; my confidence was up,” he recalled.
With a solid season on the Costa (now Toyota) Series, Salewske qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup. He pondered another run on tour to go along with it. After all, things were quieting down at home, with kids grown and moved away, and business was good.
But then, in what seems typical fashion for the Salewske story, a major change came to pass. With the purchase of FLW by MLF, there would be no 2020 Forrest Wood Cup, and previous qualifiers of such an event through the triple-A ranks were left out.
Followers of his tale would guess Salewske would pack it up, After all, he got the short end of the stick. A guaranteed 15 grand out the window.
But he persevered.
The rest, as they say, is history. Salewske went on to qualify and win the TITLE Championship at the tender age of 55, locking his place forever in the record books. But how? How could a guy in and out of the game – especially at his age – compete with the new generation of pros?
In terms of stamina and drive, Salewske doesn’t mince words. “I’m the first one up and the last one to bed.” For him, it’s always been that way.
And, when it comes to other obligations and life’s pesky commitments, Salewske shrugs it off. “I never concern myself with things where I can’t control the outcome." Easier said than done, as we all know.
Perhaps Salewske’s secret actually lies in his maturity. “Being older, you make some better decisions,” he added. Or maybe it’s his willingness to learn from others. “I travel with young guys. The way they think is amazing. They have no barriers. I’ve tried to be more like that; never saying won’t or don’t when it comes to fishing. That helped this week.”
Or maybe Rusty’s breakthrough moment was more than that. I wonder – without sounding cliché – was it destiny?
“I think I won because the wind blew,” Salewske rationalized. It seems most of the remaining field was caught up in video game fishing, seeing fish on the screen and casting to them. Salewske stayed old-school. “With a 2-foot chop, that technology became worthless, and the rest of the guys had to hide from the wind.”
But Rusty persevered the final day, much the way he has done his entire career. He won one for us old guys, proving that newer isn’t always better. Rusty stayed out in the wind, letting it blow him to victory, despite what should have happened.
Just when I thought I had it all figured out.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)